Ranging from emerald green to milky white, jade carvings work their magic on collectors both Western and Chinese.
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The water-buffalo carving was, by all accounts, a truly spectacular piece of jade. The stone was a bewitching shade of deep green that is often called “spinach jade.” The eight-inch carving of a beast lying down and glancing over its shoulder was accomplished without the use of electrically powered drills and lathes to shape and refine the hard stone—it had to be, because the artwork was created in 18th century China. The buffalo came with a gilt bronze stand that bore the mark of Emperor Qianlong, who famously embraced jade-carving along with the complete range of Chinese fine arts and lavished a decent chunk of his fortune on them. A British nobleman, Sackville Pelham, the fifth Earl of Yarborough, acquired the carving from Sparks for £300 in 1938, a sum that translated to £52,000 by 2009, the time it was consigned to Woolley and Wallis, a regional auction house in England. “Three hundred pounds was a fortune in 1938,” says John Axeford, founder of the house’s Asian department. “Even then, it was considered a damn good jade.”
The Earl didn’t enjoy his prize for very long; he died in 1948. The jade passed to his daughter, Lady Diana Miller, who moved to South Africa that same year and postponed taking stock of her inheritance until her return to England in 2005, when she opened a wooden chest in a bank vault, expecting to find porcelain, and peeled away the newspaper wrappings to reveal a greater treasure instead. Woolley and Wallis estimated the jade at £500,000. It sold in May 2009 for £4.16 million ($6.6 million), a record for any jade carving at auction. The winning bidder was Eskenazi, the venerable English firm that specializes in Chinese and Oriental art. “It had the most amazing history, with a very romantic story to it,” says Philip Constantinidi. “It had everything going for it. It ticked all the boxes.”
The record for the most expensive jade carving has since been bested, but one aspect of the sale is likely to endure. Eskenazi was bidding on behalf of a Western client. The water buffalo offered at Woolley and Wallis might represent the last time a headline-worthy jade goes to a non-Chinese buyer. “It was very unusual. It is unlikely to happen again, as well,” says Axeford, who adds that at the house’s Asian art auctions, “95 percent of our buyers are from Asia,” and that there’s “barely a Caucasian face in the saleroom apart from our staff.” Constantinidi is more coy but concedes the point: “One can never say it’s going to be the last time for anything, but perhaps it’s true.”
The game-changing impact of mainland Chinese bidders on the market for Chinese art and antiques barely qualifies as news anymore. They’re here, they want their things back, and they’re pledging staggeringly large sums for the right to repossess them. Sometimes they thrill the auction houses by pushing mediocre pieces into the stratosphere, and sometimes they horrify the auction houses by bidding big and not paying up. Axeford sums the situation up when he dubs it “a bit Wild Westy, or Wild Easty.” Actually, one statement above isn’t completely correct—most mainland Chinese are here only technically. “What has leveled the playing fields is live online auctions,” says Izzy Chait of I.M. Chait in Beverly Hills, Calif., who has more than four decades of experience with handling Asian art. “Most Chinese have an iPad or an iPhone and can go online and bid anywhere in the world over the phone. Six years ago, they could not do that.”
I.M. Chait’s house record for a jade illustrates just how much things have changed. A Qianlong-era jade mountain carving, which Chait originally sold to a local Californian three decades ago, was reconsigned to his auction house five years ago. A Taiwanese bidder tendered the winning $150,000 bid. About six months later, Chait spotted the jade on the cover of a sale catalogue from a Beijing auction house, which estimated it at $1 million. He does not know if it sold or was bought in.
The mainland Chinese ferociously pursue jade in all forms and from all eras, but especially imperial Qianlong white jade; only imperial Qianlong porcelain routinely commands greater prices at auction. The reasons behind the intensity of their passion might not be immediately obvious. In the West, jade is beautiful, pleasing to the touch, and decorative; in the East, it is that and much more. No less an authority than Confucius sang its praises, declaring jade to be the embodiment of 11 virtues a classic 18th-century novel, features a main character born not with a silver spoon in his mouth but a piece of jade. And the medals given out at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing contained the precious stone as well as the standard precious metal. The jade rings embedded in those medals are an allusion to bi disks, one of the oldest motifs in jade, dating to as early as 4,000–6,000 B.C. Round and flat, with a hole bored in the middle, bi symbolized heaven. “They were not burial items; they were the beginning of ancestor-worship,” says Spencer Throckmorton of Throckmorton Fine Art in New York, which specializes in archaic jades. “They were placed on stone altars as a tribute to the ancestors.”
“For Chinese collectors, jade has a character to it like no other in the decorative arts,” says Colin Sheaf, head of Asian Arts at Bonhams and chairman of Bonhams Asia. “None of them have the same absolutely religious connotations. It’s unparalleled in the Chinese decorative-arts sphere.” Michael Bass of Christie’s New York says, “With jade, there’s a Western taste and a Chinese taste. Pre-2000, the market taste was very Western-oriented. It wasn’t relegated to just white, yellow or imperial. Archaic jades and even brown boulder carvings that retain some aspects of the stone were very much treasured by Westerners. The Chinese like a pure white, single, solid color, with no flaws.” Bass reports that the blazing-hot jade market has not prompted an exodus of Western bidders, at least not yet. “Lots of Westerners are still interested, but again, the price point is a little different,” he says. “The Chinese are really gung-ho and willing to pay premium prices for great jade.”
On occasion, the scope of a jade’s appeal only becomes clear after it achieves an unexpectedly high price. The house record at Bonhams belongs to a Qianlong yellow jade scepter that commanded £1.3 million ($2 million). Much of its appeal was instantly evident. It was fashioned from yellow jade, a particularly rare form of the stone; it was Qianlong-era; and it had a tantalizing provenance, having passed through the hands of a British officer who served during the Boxer Rebellion. What added fuel to the fire was its length—14 ½ inches.
The delights of jade come with a host of challenges and frustrations, however. The term “jade” is, to put it charitably, unsatisfactory and imprecise. Two gemstones, nephrite and jadeite, earn the moniker, and the big thing that they have in common is their hardness. Nephrite yields the white color most coveted by the Chinese, while the most desirable jadeite assumes a vivid emerald-green hue of the type that many Westerners envision when they think of jade. Nephrite comes in several other colors besides white, including yellow, brown, gray, pale green, the spinach green of the celebrated water buffalo carving and even blue. The Chinese term for jade, yü, applies not just to nephrite and jadeite but to any carved hardstone.
Further complicating matters is the difficulty of dating jades. While there are reliable scientific tests that can confirm whether a piece of jade is nephrite, jadeite or another hardstone entirely, determining whether it was carved during the Han dynasty or centuries later by a clever faker is a task too subtle and complex to delegate to a machine. “You’ve got to have someone who’s got their eye in, who knows it. Not many have that depth of experience,” says London dealer Roger Keverne, who has handled jade for 46 years and authored a well-regarded book on the topic.
Keverne firmly counters the notion that bargains exist in the market for jade. “If they’re good jades, no. And they probably never have been bargains, in a way,” he says. “There were jades worth £20,000 when houses were selling for £20,000. A good jade, always, in real terms, is full price.” In this spirit, Chait affirms that there’s no reason not to start collecting now. “It’s always a good time,” he says, “because it can only become more difficult in the future.” Axeford carries the idea to its logical extreme by advising new collectors to chase precisely what the Chinese want most. “Spend more than you can afford on a good piece of white jade,” he says. “In 20 years, you won’t be able to buy a tenth of it.”